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Supreme Court OKs arrests for minor offenses

Gail Atwater
Atwater was pulled over and arrested for not wearing a seat belt and failing to secure her children in seat belts as she drove home from a soccer practice in 1997.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police can arrest people for minor offenses that would be punishable only by a fine.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said a Lago Vista, Texas, police officer did not violate Gail Atwater's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure when he arrested and handcuffed her for not wearing a seat belt.

"We simply cannot conclude that the Fourth Amendment, as originally understood, forbade peace officers to arrest without a warrant for misdemeanors not amounting to or involving breach of the peace," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the majority. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

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U.S. Supreme Ct. decision in Atwater v. Lago Vista
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The court said that in this case, Atwater's 1997 arrest was a gratuitous humiliation "imposed by a police officer who was [at best] exercising poor judgment."

"But we have traditionally recognized that a responsible Fourth Amendment balance is not well served by standards requiring sensitive, case-by-case determinations of government need, lest every discretionary judgment in the field be converted into an occasion for constitutional review," Souter wrote.

Atwater and her two children were on their way home from a soccer practice when the officer stopped her pickup truck because he noticed none of them were wearing seat belts.

The officer arrested Atwater, cuffed her hands behind her back, and took her to the city police station, where she was photographed and held in a cell by herself for about an hour before she posted a $310 bond. A friend took care of her children. She later pleaded no contest to the seat belt charge and paid a $50 fine.

The court said it would be difficult to draw a line that police in the field could use when deciding whether or not to make an arrest. The court said it would be difficult or impossible for an officer to know what charges a district attorney might bring or what mitigating factors, such as prior offenses, might be present.

The ruling also rejected Atwater's argument that the framers of the Constitution sought to limit peace officers' warrantless misdemeanor arrest authority to instances of actual breach of the peace, citing a number of cases dating to English common law.

The court said there is no need for "the development of a new and distinct body of constitutional law" because there has been no "epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests."

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen G. Breyer disagreed, saying that the Fourth Amendment demands that a warrantless search be reasonable.

"Justifying a full arrest by the same quantum of evidence that justifies a traffic stop -- even though the offender cannot ultimately be imprisoned for her conduct -- defies any sense of proportionality and is in serious tension with the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable seizures," O'Connor wrote for the minority.

The dissent said that arresting an individual gives police the authority to search body and possessions. If the person is in a car, police can search the vehicle and its contents along with any passengers.

The dissent added that once a person is arrested, he or she can be held up to 48 hours and may be jailed with potentially violent offenders.

O'Connor argued that police should not have "constitutional carte blanche" to make a warrantless arrest for a minor, fine-only charge and should be "able to point to specific and articulable facts" to justify such arrests.

She wrote that this discretion "carries with it grave potential for abuse," even though there has not been a rash of unnecessary arrests.

O'Connor also wrote that as "the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing individual."

CNN Senior Washington Correspondent Charles Bierbauer and CNN writer David Williams contributed to this report.

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